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Department of Defense cannot continue to ignore what's killing recruitment

American soldiers are seen at the U.S. army base in Qayyara, south of Mosul.
American soldiers are seen at the U.S. army base in Qayyara, south of Mosul. | REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

With all the problems our nation is now facing, a most serious threat to national security has developed under our noses: The catastrophic drop in military recruiting. Back in May, top Defense Department leaders told Congress this was the worst recruiting crisis since the start of the all-volunteer military half a century ago.

According to a late July Army Times article: 

“Defense Department officials have been sounding the alarm for months: the military is going to miss its enlisted recruiting goals this year….. As of late June, according to an Army spokesperson, the Army had only hit 40% of it’s recruiting goal of 55,400 new soldiers for fiscal year 2022.”

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This comes after lowering the bar and softening a number of previous standards and throwing a great deal of money at incentivizing recruitment. None of the extreme measures appear to be working, and top leaders are expecting 2023 to be much worse.

The DOD offers a multitude of reasons for the crisis. In particular, they place blame on economic issues and a smaller percentage of those able to serve. Though some of this is valid, it's not the leading cause. Defense Department leaders continue to stonewall facing the real elephant in the room: The perceived wokeness of top DOD leadership (and policies) by the conservative half of the country.

Let me explain.

First, polls show what recruiters all know: The number one factor bearing on whether an American will join the military is a close military family member (serving or a veteran). The same families continue to serve generation after generation. In my own case, my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all career Army officers. I served for over 30 years, and now, my own son has joined our tradition.

This is not unusual, as it's the mainstay of military recruitment. Those “military” families are more conservative and disproportionately from rural and “red” states. Going back even three years ago, those families overwhelmingly encouraged their sons and daughters to join. Within the past couple of years, and particularly during the Biden administration, the support for the military among those families has cratered. 

According to a recent Reagan National Defense Survey, the percentage of Americans who “have a lot of confidence and trust in the military” plummeted from 70% to 45% in the past couple of years. The debacle of the botched Afghanistan withdrawal caused a catastrophic 11 percentage point drop. To give greater clarity on which demographic had lost the most confidence, the poll showed conservative loss of confidence was beyond what we have seen in American history. A Ronald Reagan Institute survey showed that in 2018 “87% of Republican respondents said they had a great deal of confidence in the military”.  That number plummeted to only 53% by 2021, and it continues to plummet among conservatives.

If you read “replies” to articles about the recruiting crisis in military-centric publications (with overwhelming veteran/retiree readers), you will see countless replies from veterans and retirees about wokeness deterring them from encouraging service. Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Chuck Devore, a former Reagan-era Defense official and former California legislator wrote: 

“When you openly accuse the military of being rightwing and harboring white supremacists, insist on schooling them in transgender pronoun usage…. you shouldn’t be shocked that they don’t want to enlist under a leadership they neither trust nor admire.”

Colonel Devore also provided this anecdote:

“To doublecheck that the economy wasn’t the overriding reason why recruiting is failing, I spoke with a friend who leads a large police academy in Texas. He said the classes are full of new recruits (although in Chicago, Oregon, and Washington State, areas where police are under attack, things are different).”

Many of us thought military leaders would turn away from woke policies and concentrate on warfighting amid the Ukraine-Russia war.  At the very least, we thought Defense Department leaders would feel compelled to respond to the perception of wokeness in terms of recruitment.  Yet these DOD leaders appear to pretend it doesn’t exist while the Department implodes.

Ironically, even “uber-Liberal” publications like The Atlantic have recognized and reported on this issue:  

“Where (Milley) deserves greater criticism is his congressional testimony from a few weeks ago……..  he went on to connect racism to the attack on the Capitol: ‘I want to understand white rage … What is it that made thousands of people assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?’”

The overriding duty of Department of Defense leadership is to provide national defense, and not push woke ideology. Fixing the recruiting crisis will require the courage to push back against ideologues in the administration by putting the Constitution first. We either return to a politically neutral military focused on winning wars, or we will see the military and national defense wither away.

Bill Connor, a retired Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book Articles from War.

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